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Intellectual Property Law

This guide outlines sources for intellectual property law research--patents, copyrights, and trademarks.


Patent Law Basics 

A patent is a government grant of rights over an invention, giving the grantee the authority to exclude others from making, using, offering for sale, or selling the invention in the United States or from importing the invention into the United States. Patents are granted by the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) after a review process. There are three types of patents: 

1) Utility patents may be granted to anyone who invents or discovers any new and useful process, machine, article of manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof;
2) Design patents may be granted to anyone who invents a new, original, and ornamental design for an article of manufacture; and
3) Plant patents may be granted to anyone who invents or discovers and asexually reproduces any distinct and new variety of plant.

Patents typically last 20 years from the date of application. After the initial application, the patent application undergoes a rigorous examiniation process before the USPTO which can take months or even years to approve.   

Primary sources of authority

  • Title 35, U.S. Code - U.S. patent law is a statutory scheme codified in title 35 of the United States code. Taking up its modern structure in 1952, title 35 has been amended several times, with significant amendments including the 2011 America Invents Act. 
  • Case Law - the best way to find patent case law is to use statutory annotations--e.g., "notes of decision" in Westlaw, or through the U.S. Code Service in Lexis--that relate to specific statutory provisions. In addition, several case law databases are helpful: search under Westlaw Keynumber 291 (Patents) or in Bloomberg's U.S. Patent Quarterly. 

Secondary Sources


Secondary sources can be an excellent place to start your research. They typically give you an overview of the application of the law, some history, citations to primary sources, and analysis on unsettled points of law. Treatises can be an especially good choice for patent law research because there are several that closely track the Title 35 and provide citations and analysis of nearly all primary law on point. The following treatises are generally regarding as leading authorities: 

  • Chisum on Patents : A Treatise on the Law of Patentability, Validity and Infringement by Chisum, Donald S. (also available to UNC Law Community through Lexis+) This 33-volume treatise provides an authoritative analysis of all issues pertaining to patent law, including doctrines, rules and case law relating to patentability, validity and infringement. Chisum on Patents is also the most cited treatise in patent law today - cited more than 800 times by the U.S. federal courts and twice as much as the nearest competitor since it was released  in 1978. 
  • Moy's Walker on Patents by Moy, R. Carl. (available to UNC Law Community through Westlaw) This highly-cited multi-volume set offers a comprehensive and analytical treatment of the history of patent law, the patent system's organization and process, patentability issues, and statutory law and case law on other patent law issues.

Deskbooks and Practice Guides 

Deskbooks and practice guides are another good place to start your research, especially if you are unfamiliar with Patent Law and are looking for a straightforward introduction to this area of the law. These tools can also be especially helpful for understanding how to address practical issues such as filing registrations with the Copyright Office, drafting industry-specific licensing agreements, or drafting cease-and-decist letters for specific uses. Some of the most useful titles in the UNC collection include: 

  • Modern Patent Law Precedent (available to UNC Law Community through Westlaw). A dictionary of more than 2,000 terms and concepts from patent law. Each term or concept is explained through references from case law and also may track historical developments or changes.
  • Patent Law : A Practitioner's Guide, by Hildreth, Ronald B. and David Aker (also available to UNC Community through PLI Discover Plus). Single volume guide designed for practitioners, with helpful checklists, flowcharts,  and forms. 
  • Patent Law in a Nutshell (also available to UNC Law Community through Westlaw). An excellent study aid or quick reference guide for patent law basics. 
  • Patent Law Fundamentals by Mills, John Gladstone (available to UNC Law Community through Westlaw). A extremely thorough multi-volume work outlining patent law basics, how to obtain a patent, and how to enforce patent rights.

Statutory and Administrative Law Research

Title 35 of the United States Code

The United States' patent laws are codified in Title 35 of the United States Code. The text of the Act, including amendments, is available online in a number of places, including freely from the U.S. Government Publishing Office and from the Cornell Legal Information Institute. Title 35 has been enacted by Congress as a positive law title, meaning that this U.S. Code title is legal evidence of the law (read more about the distinction between positive law and non-positive law titles here).

While free versions of Title 35 are available online, for most serious research questions it will be more efficient to access this Title through subscription databases that offer citator services, listing cases, regulations, and secondary sources that cite to particular sections of the Act. Two of the best and most frequently used are Westlaw's KeyCite, Lexis+'s Shepards Reports. Those two services also offer statutory annotations ("Notes of Decision" in Westlaw, and "Annotations," located at the bottom of the screen, in Lexis+) which categorize and summarize cases that have interpreted specific statutory text. As with any statutory research, consider using the table of contents and internal cross-references rather than just full-text searches to help guide your research through the statutory scheme enacted by Congress. 

Title 37, Code of Federal Regulations 

Title 37, CFR  contains regulations covering patent, trademark and copyright. Although a highly technical area of the law, the regulatory authority of the USPTO is limited and so regulations covering patents are minimal, mostly covering the process of application and issues such as representation before the USPTO. Title 37 is also available online through the US Government Publishing Office (PDF and e-CFR) and from the Cornell Legal Information Institute.

USPTO Resources

Through its website,  USPTO publishes a number of extremely useful resources for both individuals and lawyers practicing in this area. Among the most useful are:

Patent Trial and Appeal Board

The Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) is housed within the USPTO. Its duties review of adverse decisions, review of appeals of reexaminations, derivation proceedings, inter partes and post-grant reviews, and rendering decisions on interferences.Through its website you can find: 

Finding Patents

In addition to the law governing patent application and enforcement, it is also important to be able to find and research patents themselves. Reseraching prior patents can be a complex process; it is not unusual to pay significant search fees. The following sources can help you locate and research patent history: